Every week, to my delight, an email from Amy Odell arrives in my inbox. The New York-based fashion journalist is the founder of Back Row, self-described as “the ad-free fashion and culture newsletter that publishes what other publications won’t”, and now, the author of the much-anticipated book Anna: The Biography.
Anna is Odell’s second book, one she spent a number of years reporting - exploring the power, career and life so far of the iconic Vogue editor. She spoke to over 250 people, but not the woman herself who politely declined; Odell did, however, get rare access to several key people in Wintour's life. It is a riot of a read, packed with plenty of juicy detail and gossip.
Odell is known for her sharp voice and analytical take. In 2016 she published a book of essays, Tales from the Back Row: An Outsider's View from Inside the Fashion Industry, a perfectly titled showcase of her arms-length approach.
With Back Row, she regularly publishes well-reported stories and opinion pieces on fashion, beauty, pop culture and the changing media landscape. Recent examples include a column only slightly shadily headlined, "While Enninful basks in the glory of a Beyoncé cover story, Wintour takes selfies with Kim Kardashian", and another looking at Mark Zuckerberg’s foray into luxury fashion with the Metaverse. She’s written about “the maddening experience of shopping for ‘sustainable’ clothing’”, a sarcastic take on Nicole Kidman’s “hair wellness journey” and Scarlett Johansson’s skincare launch (and the media churn that celebrity beauty lines invoke), and published insightful interviews with a retoucher and various retail workers. A column exploring whether fashion should be political is one of my favourites, simple but impactful in its approach.
In other words: Odell is one of my fashion media and writer idols, looking at fashion with a celebratory but raised eyebrow and unafraid to criticise or point out its follies. That all makes her an intriguing person to write a biography on Wintour, a woman who has been the very public figurehead of a decadent and slow-to-change global industry for years - and who defines the idea of a front row insider.
Odell describes the resulting hefty, 400-page book as being about “a woman in a unique position of power”, but it is equally a unique history of the changing fashion and media industries. So when I had the opportunity to chat to the writer about her work, we had a lot to talk about…
• Anna: The Biography by Amy Odell, $50 (published by Atlantic/Allen & Unwin) is out now. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I know we are here to talk about Anna, but as I’m such a fan of your Substack newsletter, I wanted to talk a little about that too. Particularly as you have used it to help pre-promote the book and publish more from your interview with Andre Leon Talley. Why did you start Back Row? What do you want it to be?
I started Back Row about a year ago, but it's probably better to say the current iteration really began in the fall [roughly September/October] - I picked it up again after I finished the book because I had some time, and a lot of different reasons.
The main one being that I missed kind of that daily or weekly connection with an audience, which I used to have when I was writing for The Cut. I started my fashion journalism career really at New York magazine in 2008 and I was a blogger. You know what that's like: you're writing and posting stories all day, every day. I kind of missed that: I built up an audience, I could write humour, I could do reporting. I did all kinds of things and so I wanted to get back to that a little bit.
There was also so much reporting that I couldn't put in the book and so much of it is so delicious and fun - I wanted to be able to get some of the extra stuff out there. And also analysis and insight about Anna or Vogue when it is in the news, like around the time of the Met Gala.
Platforms like Substack also represent shifts in fashion and lifestyle media in general, which is a huge part of the book - and Anna’s evolution within all of those changes.
Yeah. Substack is a platform that is reader funded and mine is free to read right now - I don’t know if it will always be free. But it’s not a platform that is based on or monetised through advertising dollars - and I think this is really important for fashion.
Fashion media is very influenced by advertising dollars. The advertisers dictate what you can and can't say, and this is the reason that Vogue is puff pieces.
They're not necessarily negative about their advertisers who they want access to. So my whole thing on Substack is that I don't have advertisers, I'm not kowtowing to anybody and I also am not trying to generate massive amounts of traffic. I don't need 50 million page views a month, which modern publications need - I don't need that for my publication to be successful.
I'm really just writing for the audience and that's how blogging used to be. I feel like the aughts were kind of the glory days for blogs and there are still some amazing blogs out there that have that pithy, engaging voice.
As someone who immersed themselves in the corporate media world that Anna exists in, and is also on these new media platforms like Substack and TikTok - what’s your take on where fashion media is right now, and where it's going?
I have a prediction that print magazines - like Vogue, the ones that still carry relevance - are trending in a direction where they will eventually be run in such a way that a group of influencers will get together once a quarter say, and make a magazine. Then disband and they'll blast the content across the publication’s social platforms and their own personal social platforms, and their followings will help sustain it.
I really think that we're trending towards a model like that. There is an appetite for high quality artistic fashion shoots, but legacy publishing has a hard time supporting it because it's expensive and it takes a long time to do. The focus is on making so much content and making it across mediums: you have your print magazine, you have short form video, you have long form video, photos and carousels on Instagram, an Instagram story, there are just endless things that you have to do. And the staff at these magazines are not getting bigger. So in order to get that taste level and that quality that they need, I really think it's going to be a model of influencers coming together, making a magazine on a freelance basis.
Interesting! I was intrigued in the book where you wrote about how Anna pushed for a website early on, and the whole power play between vogue.com and style.com. Do you think that she has actually fit in within the changes in the digital media landscape and been successful in riding those shifts?
She hasn't evolved to the degree that she is able to. What I found to be fascinating about her is that around the turn of this century, so around 1998, 1999, she got a bee in her bonnet about the internet and she started telling people on her staff, ’we need to get Vogue online’, ‘why aren't we online at this time?’.
She saw in some way that the future was digital and she believed in it - she really pushed her team to get Vogue online.
Someone had the idea for Vogue to publish images of all the fashion shows. Now that sounds very normal, it doesn't sound revolutionary at all today because we're so used to seeing runway images - on the Vogue Runway app, the Business of Fashion, or just a brand’s Instagram. But at the time, brands did not want all the photos of their runway collections to be out there because they were worried about getting knocked off and counterfeits. They were very, very nervous about it. But Anna convinced many of them at the time to allow Vogue to run the full runway show in these slideshows, and I found that to be fascinating.
The fashion industry can be very slow to embrace technology. I'm amazed at some of the things I see brands doing on TikTok because they have been so resistant to change in the past.
However, Conde Nast was very comfortable with its business model - they were doing great at the time in the ‘90s, selling print advertising and making tons of money. It was very hard, according to my reporting, for the executives to make that shift and to innovate digitally because they were so comfortable with what they were doing, and it was working. So we see in the book that digital was kind of on the back burner.
I said to one of my sources, 'is Anna technologically savvy? She sounds like she’s technologically savvy’. And this person was like, ‘she's not, but she understands when things are important and she can convince people who are important at Conde Nast that things are important’.
You've said in other interviews that your publisher brought the idea of the biography to you. Why did you say yes to the project? What intrigued you most as a reporter?
I have been fascinated by Anna for as long as I can remember, to be honest with you. I became aware of her at a very young age. I was always interested in magazines and just fascinated by her power - and particularly how she has been portrayed in the media, because for decades she'd been portrayed as the devil in Prada or Nuclear Wintour, or ‘the Wintour of our discontent’ - this very icy figure.
A lot of people I spoke to, who had worked for Anna and who know her, felt like that media narrative was really wrapped up in a lot of sexism. I want people to read the book and decide if they agree that that's the case.
I've just always been fascinated by the scrutiny that she has been under for her whole career. If you think about business leaders in general, she's also someone who has had extraordinary longevity and power. She’s been at Vogue since 1998, so that will be 34 years this summer. Think of other business leaders who have been running companies or running brands for 34 years - Jeff Bezos left Amazon after 27.
You have also talked about how the concept of the book is really about power and how Anna has held onto that power. What do you think has been the secret to her success in doing so for so long?
Her strength is really that she is able to understand the creative side of the business very well. She began her career as a fashion editor. I traced that throughout the book, all those jobs that she had - beginning in London, in the early ‘70s, then coming to New York and being a sittings editor at Harper's Bazaar, working at Viva and House & Garden.
She did that and she understands all of that, but she also can talk to business people. She's not just a stylist who can talk to only designers or creatives - she’s very good in the room with business people as well. That’s really the challenge of being an editor in chief - bridging the business side of the magazine with the creative side.
There are other, smaller things too. She was very good at managing up, according to my sources - managing men like Alexander Liberman [Vogue art director and Conde Nast’s editorial director for many years] and Si Newhouse, her bosses at the company. She was very good at managing and charming them, people said.
She’s also someone who doesn’t really talk about herself. She doesn't talk that much in the office at all. She's not big on gossip, she doesn't get dragged down by that. If you don't tell people a lot, then that kind of puts you in a position of strength in a workplace.
As a sort of ‘expert’ on Anna and the role of a Vogue editor, I'm interested to hear your thoughts on Edward Enninful, who's often named as the heir to that role. Is he, or is there anyone else, that you could see stepping into that powerful role?
That's the big question. Edward Enninful is an extremely talented editor in his own right. He famously appears with Anna in The September issue, the documentary about Vogue; he used to style shoots for Vogue.
Now he's the editor-in-chief of British Vogue, and audiences are very excited by what he's doing. He's done so many memorable shoots and covers for that magazine in a short period of time.
And he has been named as a potential successor to Anna. But a lot of people have come up in the news over the years as being potential successors. There was a period when Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Vogue Paris, came up as someone who was going to succeed Anna - and all of the previous rumours have been wrong. So I'm always really wary of any report as they have all been wrong in the past - as have reports about Anna leaving. [In my reporting for the book] I couldn't find any instance in which any of those rumours were true.
Anna wouldn't speak to you for the book, which you've been open about, but she did give you access to some key people in her life. Can you tell me about that process and how that all came to be?
When I started reporting the book in late 2018, I got many nos. I had serious doubts about whether or not I would even be able to complete the assignment. A lot of people told me that I wasn't going to be able to do it, that Anna would shut it down and use all the might of Conde Nast to try to shut it down.
After I had worked on the book for about a year to a year and a half and interviewed more than 100 people, her office did reach out to me because they heard that I was working on the book. I explained that it was a biography about her as a woman in a unique position of power. The result of that conversation was that they sent over a list of people who they offered to help facilitate interviews with, and I asked for a few more people who I knew would not talk to me without her saying it was ok.
The vast majority of the reporting was not done that way to be clear, the majority of it, I did on my own. But it was helpful to have that access to people who are close to her, who could tell me about more personal moments in her life.
With that access I was also able to go back to some people who I felt were really key but who had earlier told me no, and say ‘I know you hung up on me but I am hoping you might reconsider’. And I did get some more yeses.
Who were you most surprised to have access to, in her inner circle?
Oh my gosh. What a question… You know, doing the interviews was so exciting. There were so many people like Grace Coddington, Andre Leon Talley, Serena Williams. Who did you like hearing from in the book?
Obviously Grace, Andre, Tom Ford - but I was intrigued by people like Miranda Brooks [Anna’s longtime friend and landscaper] and even Mark Holgate [Vogue fashion news director]. People who are very close to her in a work and/or personal capacity.
All those people who I knew were close to Anna were all exciting. It's hard to say more exciting than the other, because they all had different stories about her and their own unique experience with her.
Miranda Brooks, I found that to be quite delicious. She is Anna's landscape designer, but has also contributed to Vogue over the years. And she's very close friends with Anna. She told me what it was like to be at Mastic [Anna’s country home] and wake up early in the morning, even on a Saturday and Sunday, and play tennis with Anna - who never misses shots, who will wear a maroon or navy blue Prada tracksuit.
Then they'll have a coffee and then walk the grounds. It’s a very big property - Anna will walk around and see that a deer has eaten a plant and say, ‘let’s replace that, let’s fix that’. And that's just the kind of attention to detail that she has in everything that she does, whether it's her home life or what she's doing at Vogue.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is that there is so much juicy detail - little things that really build up Anna’s character. Especially for a media and a fashion nerd like me, you’re turning the page and going ‘ooh’, ‘oooooh!’. But what small detail about Anna surprised you the most?
There’s things like - for lunch, she used to eat a steak and caprese salad without the tomatoes.
Yes. The salad!
I was surprised that went viral. But I knew it was a great detail and I had to put it in the book.
But, and this is actually a bigger thing, I imagined her as someone who was maybe more confrontational and obsessed with nurturing grudges against people - that reputation that she has had publicly for so long. But that didn't really prove to be the case through my reporting. That's not the impression that I have now, having done all the interviews with more than 250 people and written the book. Which is not to say that she can't be cold or icy, or even cruel at times, and there are examples of that in the book. But I didn't get the impression that she's sitting there figuring out or thinking about how to exact revenge on certain people.
You spoke to a lot of people and reported a lot of detail, but were there any questions about her that were left unanswered?
You know, everything that I thought that I could get answers to, I did. But the big question with Anna today is when she's going to leave.
People were able to hypothesise, and those close to her were able to guess; and they said that she surely has a plan for her exit. She just hasn't told them what it is. She is someone who is calculated and always has an agenda. So people think that she knows what she’s going to do, but we're just not going to find out until the time comes.
One of her closest personal friends, Anne McNally, told me that when Anna became artistic director of Conde Nast in 2013, she found out about it in the New York Times. Anna didn't tell her that it was coming - I found that to be so surprising.
Have you had any feedback from Anna or those close to her, or who you spoke to?
A number of sources did email me to say that they enjoyed the book. But no, I have not heard from her. I'm just as curious to know what she thinks of it as anybody else.
I thought that the last line of the book was quite funny and very insightful - it's not in her nature to talk about herself, yet here we are talking about her still. Everyone is endlessly fascinated with Anna Wintour. Why do you think people in and out of fashion are so fascinated?
We live in a culture where people are always talking about themselves and what they're doing on social media. It's so normal to do that now that I think it stands out even more and she has always stood out for her mystery through her many years of being a public figure.
I know that she has private [social media] accounts that she uses to follow what's going on. But she's not out there posting herself, she's not promoting herself in that way. That's very unusual today.
I also think it’s the success and power that she has in an industry that is often controversial and mysterious, that is delightful and eccentric and opaque, and hard to understand to many people. She’s sitting at the top of this industry and that all makes her quite fascinating.
Having done all this research and immersed yourself in all things Anna Wintour - do you respect her and Vogue? Do you think either are still relevant?
Of course I respect her, and Vogue. I don't think I could have written the book if I didn’t.
And I do think Vogue is still relevant. Are people picking it up when they’re doing their grocery shopping or subscribing to it in the mail? No, but Vogue is different than it was back then. Just look at social media when Vogue puts out a cover: people talk about it. When they have Bella Hadid on the cover, or Kim Kardashian, Harry Styles, Naomi Campbell - people go on TikTok and make videos about it, they post it on Instagram, they talk about it. Whenever I ask people, ‘what do you think of this new Vogue cover?’ on Instagram, I get so many responses. People love talking about it.
Anna has always understood that she had to use Vogue to give people something to talk about.
And look, the Met Gala is probably going to be the biggest thing that Anna does when she leaves Vogue. It’s like the Super Bowl of red carpets - it could just be a New York society event, but now it’s the biggest internationally recognised red carpet that eclipses the Oscars. There is nothing else like it. It’s an Anna Wintour event, but it’s also a Vogue event, and that gives Vogue the power.
The challenge is going to be: what is the next editor going to do to make Vogue relevant? They're going to have to come up with their own formula.
• Anna: The Biography by Amy Odell, $50 (published by Atlantic/Allen & Unwin) is out now